Caribbean Travel Roundup
Newsletter - Paul Graveline, Editor
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CORRECTION: Well it finally happened. I attributed the wrong author to an article in the September issue. The BVI report appearing between those of Ginny Noyes and Joseph Scafario should have carried the name of KRIS BURDETTE and not that of Bryan Johnson. Bryan did author the Cancun article that followed and I appreciate his bringing this error to my attention. My apologies to Kris Burdette.
UPDATE: Last month I put out a call for people to submit Caribbean WWW sites and press releases to be sent tot he CTR and that I would put together a list of both during September. I did get some WWW sites but almost nothing in the line of press releases. So, we'll put those projects on hold for a few months. I still welcome both WWW sites and press releases for future publications.
CONTENTS FOR OCOTBER 1996
1/ Caribbean Area Code Changes From Stuart Monplaisir
2/ USVI News
3/ Journeys for October 1996
Some 809 area codes for the Caribbean islands are being changed Below is a list for all the islands, shown as old OLD/NEW Where a new code has NOT been issued only one number will be entered Also listed is the date the NEW code becomes effective and the date AFTER WHICH the OLD code will no longer work. Both codes will work between the dates. TBA = To be announced Countries with an * can be reached by dialling 011 + the code and either a seven digit number, like the US, or the number of digits indicated after the code. Other countries dial 1 + the code and the seven digit number Last updated : Sep 6/96 Area Code New Code Old Code OLD/NEW Country Effective Cutoff 809/264 Anguilla Nov 1/96 Jul 31/97 809/268 Antigua Apr 01/96 Mar 31/97 * 297 Aruba 809/242 Bahamas Oct 01/96 Mar 31/97 809/246 Barbados Jul 01/96 Jan 15/97 809/268 Barbuda Apr 01/96 Mar 31/97 809/441 Bermuda Oct 01/95 Sep 30/96 * 5997 + 4 digits Bonaire 809/284 British Virgin Islands TBA 809/345 Cayman Islands Sep 01/96 Aug 31/97 * 53 Cuba (Guantanamo) * 5999 + 6 digits Curaco 809/767 Dominica Oct 01/97 Sep 30/98 809 Dominican Republic 809/473 Grenada TBA * 590 Guadeloupe * 509 Hati 809/876 Jamaica May 01/97 Nov 01/97 * 596 Martinique 809/664 Montserrat Jul 01/96 Jun 01/97 809/787 Puerto Rico Mar 01/96 Jan 31/97 * 5994 + 5 digits Saba * 590 St. Barthelemy * 5993 + 5 digits St. Eustatius 809/869 St. Kitts/Nevis Oct 01/96 Mar 31/97 809/758 St. Lucia Jul 01/96 Jan 01/97 * 590 St. Martin (French side) * 5995 + 5 digits Sint Maarten (Dutch side) 809/784 St. Vincent/Grenadines TBA 809/868 Trinidad and Tobago Jun 01/97 May 31/98 809/649 Turks & Caicos TBA 809/340 U. S. Virgin Islands TBA
(Ed Note: The following items are reprinted with permission from Frank Barnako's Virgin Islands News. For more information check out http://www.clark.net/pub/fbarnako/otr/Paradise.htm/ as Frank also has a local villa to rent. Much tanks to Frank for keeping us updated on the USVI happenings. ).
Hyatt loses The Virgin Islands Daily News reports Hyatt Hotel management has lost its bid to remain onsite manager of what was known as the St. John Hyatt. A federal district appeals court ruled that since SkopBank has foreclosed on the property, it also has the right to cancel Hyatt's contract. The bank is said to be in negotiations to sell the property, presumably bringing new management. Some people are suggesting what the court action also means the Hyatt property is likely to be closed for the upcoming high season - NOT a pleasant prospect for St. John's business people. (9/24/96) St. John's Enighed (salt) Pond not protected Plans and work continue to build a maritime port at Enighed Pond, despite its being a "salt pond" and subject to federal protection. However, the island's Coastal Zone Management says the need for the port on St. John is so great, federal protection will not be enforced. But that doesn't mean St. John doesn't have a world class salt pond to visit ... in fact, it's called Salt Pond - and it's out at the eastern end of the island, near Coral Bay. (A salt pond catches dirt, sediment, and stones which run off hills, and slow their discharge to the ocean. The ponds are also valuable habitats for marine life and birds.)(9/24/96) VI Web sites: * St John: http://www.stjohnusvi.com * WSTA Radio. 1340 AM St. Thomas http://www.wsta.vi * St. John 'Tradewinds' http://www.tradewinds.vi * Caribbean on-line: http://www.caribbean-on-line.com/st/st.html Fran blows buy ... fills the cisterns) You may find it hard to believe, but water is in short supply on St., John. Rainfall has been light this year. So when Hurricane Fran, on its way to ripping apart Puerto Rico, poured at least a foot of rain on St. John in less than a day, it wasn't the worst thing that could happen. Cisterns empty before the rains started were half-full when Fran moved on. National Park Trails Goin' Bush(9/17/96) Less than 10 percent of V.I. National Park Trails have been maintained in the last year and there currently is no funding for trail maintenance, according to a V.I.N.P. spokesperson. "We have 21 miles of trail and we're not able to maintain them right now," said Mary Morris, a National Park Service Concessions Specialist. "The word I have is two miles out of 21 miles are maintained." There is no money in the current budget to hire personnel to maintain park trails, Morris added. (From the St. John Tradewinds' editor, Tom Oat. Full story at http://www.tradewinds.vi.)(9/17/96) Admission fee for parks? Congress is working ion legislation to require admission fees to most national parks. Since two thirds of St. Joh is parkland, some residents worry their daily trips to the beach will begin to take their tolls. A "pilot" fee program is set to go into effect at 50 parks as soon as next year. The Daily News quotes several residents angrily scopffing at the idea of park fees on St. John. Island gadfly Don Wilford told the Daily News he would pefer "profit-making people" like cruise ships and tour boats paid the fee. Hurricane Hortense St. Croix got about 15 inches of rain from the storm; we must assume St. John got something close to it. St. Johnians were without power for about 36 hours ... l.d. telco was not operating from here to there last night ... but is this morning. Local phones are up on St John today, so is cable TV. Rain and wind continues. Empty cisterns Monday are now half-full :) (the good news). Locals report lots of gully washouts ... those rustic roads are more rustic now ... and the churning water on the south side of the island has caused reef damage (the bad news). But ... the sun will come out tomorrow - and St. Joh is still beautiful, safe and a great place to get away from it all. (9/11/96) Woolworth reopens to huge crowds A year after Marilyn, Woolworth's has rebuilt and reopened. A week early. The Grand Opening sale was scheduled for this week, but the Daily News made a mistake and delivered the sale flyers seven days early. Advertising director Roger Reynolds says the daily News deeply regrets "the inconvenience it caused Woolworth and its customers". However, the store was open - and sale prices were honored. (9/10/96) ++++++++++++++++++++++++ NEW USVI NEWSLETTER VIA SUE AUCLAIR There is a new little newsletter called Postcards From Paradise which covers all of the goings-on on the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. The newsletter is chock-full of information about real estate, events and festivals going on on each island (such as Bomba's Full Moon Parties, Carnivals, etc.), marina notes, new restaurant openings, hotel news, real estate, and general news from the islands. You can subscribe to this home-grown newsletter for $20.00/year, 4 issues/year. If anyone is interested they can send check or money order for $20.00 payable to V. Marcley, Marcley/Adventure, P.O. Box 9901, St. John, USVI 00830-9726. Enjoy! Source: http://www.stjohntradewindsnews.com/
Holly (my "Sig. Oth") and I have been traveling to Aruba for a week every March for the last 6 years. The first year we stayed at the Manchebo Beach Resort and loved the low-key, easy-going attitudes and open-air, casual surroundings. We checked out a couple of timeshares and ended up buying a week at the Casa del Mar. Actually, I had Holly talked out of it after she put down a deposit (my lawyer instincts reared up briefly, but they were ultimately unsuccessful - thank god!) After 2 days of agony, she threw caution out the window and the deed was done. Not an ounce of regret! So, for the last number of years I have jotted down notes and sent versions of the following to people asking questions about Aruba. The restaurant review is far from extensive. There are a number of places that are very popular that we just haven't been to, yet. There are also a number of dive operations on the island, but we have stuck with one in particular. Anyone with questions or comments should feel absolutely free to send me a note and I'll be glad to fill in any details I can. (the name of each restaurant is followed by an indication of how to get there - the "beach walk" assumes you are staying at one of the low rise resorts - Costa Linda, Manchebo, Casa del Mar/Aruba Beach Club, Divi Divi.) Note that most, if not all, restaurants add a 10 - 15% gratuity to the bill. The Pirates Nest - beach walk a mock "Shipwreck" on the beach just past Manchebo Beach Resort (between Manchebo & Costa Linda). Very casual. Excellent red snapper, other seafood and curry soup, good salad bar. (Actually, the snapper has been great every place I've had it!) Conch was tough. This has become our favorite place for dinner on our "first night" on the island. Walk down the beach in bare feet (the only restaurant I've been to without shoes)-, sit at one of the tables on the patio and have dinner under the stars listening to the surf. '95 looks like this place has been discovered - we were seated right away, but most of the tables on the patio were occupied and they were pretty busy. '96 it still keeps us coming back and still on the busy side on the outdoor patio. Service slow, but it always seems that way the first night - before we've had a chance to wind down from our "State-side pace" Pega Pega Bar - beach walk at Manchebo Beach Resort - at the edge of the beach just past the pool - great for a light lunch. Great prices for a burger, hotdogs, BLT, fruit plate etc. There is a good buffet breakfast at Manchebo Beach restaurant too. (You will see ads for buffet breakfasts at a number of places around the island.) The beach should be posted for whiplash danger. Only "legal" topless beach on the island. Europeans prefer this resort and the government couldn't get them to keep their suits on. As of our March 1994 trip it appeared the beach had gone nude!! as practiced by a few uninhibited women. '95 looks like they are back to just topless - not very crowded either. Same in '96 - we lunched here a couple of times. The Red Parrot - walk main restaurant at the Divi Divi Resort. Excellent variety on the menu - on the expensive side. You can go casual or dress up (one of the few restaurants that we dress for). Fancy appetizers to fancy desserts. (A $40+ per person dinner if you go from appetizer to dessert). Have not been back for a few years at his point - too many other favorites. Talk of the Town (Best Western) - cab this restaurant is in town (Oranjestad) connected with the first resort established on the island - same owner later built Manchebo Beach. Good food, excellent grouper & snapper, good prices. Look for a coupon in the tourist books handed out at the airport and around the island. Chalet Swisse - cab unbelievable veal dishes, excellent service, beautiful dining room/chalet. More expensive ($45 from appetizer to dessert) but absolutely worth it. In '93 we went twice. The apple strudel was a disappointment - go for the chocolate fondue if you have room or the flan if you don't. Real good peach melba! '94 had an awful headwaiter. Holly commented to the manager and he begged for a letter of complaint. They were trying to get rid of the guy. Holly did write the letter eventually and she received a letter of thanks, a copy of the reprimand letter to the headwaiter and a certificate for dinner for 2. We returned in '95 and greeted the manager who told us that the headwaiter was gone thanks to Holly's letter and some others. We were treated to a fabulous meal, appetizers & drinks to dessert (thought just the entree would be complimentary) and he wouldn't take a cent - had to fight to leave a tip. That's customer service! La Paloma - cab excellent Italian restaurant (in Noord, I believe). Formal table setting. Call for reservations, even though you won't need them, and they will fuss all over you if you dress up (i.e. sport coat) instead of showing up in shorts, but not essential. Le Petit Cafe - cab fun place with a great steak & shrimp combo cooked on a lava rock at your table. There are two of these restaurants, one in town (Oranjestad) and one at the Americana Hotel. I recommend the one in town as it is well ventilated - the hotel restaurant gets real smoky, according to others. This place does get crowded - definitely make reservations if interested. El Gaucho - cab If I could tell you about only one restaurant, this would be it. The Argentinean beef is cooked to perfection and is incomparable to anything I've had anywhere. Don't even think of getting anything other than the beef if you go here. Must make reservations 3-4 days ahead, so call within the first day or two. The restaurant is in town (Oranjestad) and dress is casual. We usually designate a day for "in town" and then have dinner here at the end of the day. In '95 there was talk of expansion and in '96 ... wow, you should see the place now!! a number of rooms were added, but still call to make reservations ahead of time. (An aside)...This year we stopped for a beer at a pub just up the street (toward town) from El Goucho as we were a little early for our reservations. Unfortunately, I forget the name of the place, but it had relatively new decor. There was a pool hall in the back!!! This was great, if you enjoy shooting pool, except the bumpers on the table were practically dead. I think the weather gets to them after awhile. Holly stayed up front at the bar while I shot a few racks in the back - the owner let me play for free - no one else around. They were preparing for a 9-ball tournament that evening and were expecting one of the Venezuelan champions to take on one of Aruba's finest, among others. I could have entered for a small fee, but I passed (I would explain that Holly was not interested in hanging around a pool hall - even though it was nice, but the real reason was that I would most likely embarrass myself.) Seaport Village (formerly Harbour Town) - cab Shopping mall, casino & restaurants in Oranjestad right on the water. This complex was going down the tubes when the Sonesta bought it. Spring 1994 they are improving the landscaping and the place is frequented by tourists brought in on the cruise ships. 1995 we found a beautiful new look - still working here and there, but it is definitely picking up - more shops etc. There is a small cafe type restaurant at the far end of the mall where we've had lunch and a larger one next to it called "The Waterfront" where we've had dinner. They are particularly convenient if you are ending your day of shopping at this mall and getting ready to pack it in. The Waterfront has an indoor restaurant with a great outdoor dining area - casual. '96 we had an nice dinner, but the food and the place really didn't interest us as it used to - getting expensive and we didn't think the meal warranted the price. Too many other excellent places to choose from. Brisas del Mar - cab This restaurant is a "recent find" (1994) that is worth the $14 cab ride to San Nicolas, particularly if you enjoy seafood (best to go there on a day when you have a rental vehicle). The prices are moderate, dress is definitely casual, the food is "local" and exceptional and the ambiance is nice - would be better if there was a little more room between tables. The restaurant is not big - definitely make reservations - and it is located right near the water. The long wall facing the water would otherwise have large picture windows, but they have been removed for a wonderful open- air view of the ocean. (No bug problem whatsoever due to the ever blowing breeze.) You are facing west, so the best time to go is early evening to watch the sunset while enjoying lobster, conch, squid, wahoo fish (excellent white fish) and other delicacies of the sea. They also have beef, chicken and pork for those so inclined. Sometimes you wait awhile for a return cab ride and may hook up with other diners returning to a resort in the same area where you are staying. La Cabana - short cab ride We have not been, but we heard a lot of good things about this resort, their casino and their restaurants. I believe it is the largest resort now on Aruba. Rigoletto's - cab ride Just tried this place out in '96 after hearing about it for many years (We try to go to new places, but its hard when you have so many good ones to choose from!) We had a wonderful time. Met one couple from Indiana and another from Michigan - people tend to get friendlier the longer they are on the island. The food was excellent. My dinner was on the expensive side (one of the night's specials). It was a seafood medley with everything - lobster, shrimp, mussels, calmari, octopus, clams, scallops and some fish (though I can't remember what kind) It was awesome, but the $24 price would even make me choose something else next time! Buccaneer Restaurant - cab ride This was the find for '95. We had very good meals, moderately priced, in what appeared by the decor to be the hold of a pirate ship - what a blast. In one room are a series of booths, each with a fish tank in the wall - as though you were looking out a submerged porthole. The other room has a 5,000 gallon saltwater aquarium. The chef/owner came out to chat with the customers and when Holly raved about the salad dressing, the chef sent us home with a jar of the stuff! I can't recall whether they take reservations, but I do recall we were told to get there early to get a booth with a fish tank. We got there around 6 and got one of the booths. The place filled up quickly after that. Roseland - part of the Alhambra Casino (see below) Although we have never eaten there, I mention this place for the budget minded. They serve an all you can eat buffet for $11 or $12 with different specials every night. A lot of people from the low rises head there for dinner as it is just across the street, but I have not heard anything good or bad about the place. Even though some of these restaurants are noted as places to dress up, there are no such requirements. Feel free to travel without any "dress- up" stuff. Do take a sweater and jeans for the evenings as the breeze continues to blow and it can get cool at night. Generally speaking, always call to make a reservation. Except for a few places (El Gaucho, Brisas del Mar & Le Petit Cafe and possibly the Buccaneer), you probably won't need them, but I think the restaurateurs appreciate getting calls for reservations and you never know when a place might get busy. You can expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $40+ per person for dinner depending on average to expensive. All cab fares are set by the government, no hassles with trying to bargain, and tipping is not expected, though you might check the tipping part at the hotel. For example, the trip from the airport to the low rises is $12. There is a bus service on the island, but the cab service is very good and obviously takes less time. Rule #1 - don't be in a hurry for anything. The pace is slower than molasses in January, but then, that's what its supposed to be. Everyone is friendly. Even the people you will meet on the street around the resorts trying to interest you in a timeshare are low key. The Alhambra Casino & Mall is across the street from Manchebo Beach Resort, Casa del Mar/Aruba Beach Club and the Divi Divi. Great place for perfumes, Cuban cigars and some good quality T- shirts. There is a "New York" deli there for good sandwiches. The casino is also rather low key, from nickel slots to craps and a good place for beginners to learn the ropes. In '96 I tried my hand at Caribbean Stud poker. I understand it has the worst odds of all the games of chance, but has progressively higher payoffs the better the hand you have. I walked out with the biggest winnings I've ever scored when I was dealt a full house! Casinos at the high rises are definitely "glitzier". If you want to get off the beach & do something other than shop, rent a car to explore the island - Rock formations at Casibari (the guy who runs the lunch counter/bar is into Big Time Wrestling - I don't know if he is still there as it has been a few years) or the Natural Bridge. Or, rent a jeep and head over to the California Lighthouse. From there you can head out over the lava rock along the "rough side" of the island. Gorgeous views. There are also caves to explore on another section of the island. Just ask at the front desk. Looking for a real "hole-in-the-wall bar" - head for Charlie's Bar & Restaurant in San Nicolas. This rather famous place on the island definitely saw some bar room brawls in its heyday. San Nicolas is where the E on refinery (now owned by Costal) is located. Ran at full capacity during WW2 refining Venezuelan crude into jet fuel for the Allies. The bar is decorated (overflowing) with stuff left there or sent in by patrons - from expired drivers licenses & credit cards to hats, ties, sneakers & hockey sticks. Supposedly excellent steak tips, but we didn't stay longer than to have a beer. There are a number of dive shops on the island, but I would recommend Mermaid Sport Divers. I have gone diving with and completely trust Carlos & Wendy. We did our checkout dives with them a few years ago and have stuck with them since. The shop is off the Manchebo Beach Resort parking lot. The operation is small and has a "lug your own" style with shore and boat dives. Although the rental equipment was looking a little worse for the wear a few years ago, it has been upgraded and some new stuff brought in. We BYO so that's not a problem. '95 operation is improved! some newer equipment and air compressor on site. '96 we had a great time and were surprised that the infamous "dive van" had been replaced with a newer van! Many times we joked about the old one being driven off a dock to create a new dive site! Definitely say hi from Chuck & Holly in Boston if you see them. Depending on what you want to see, there is an wonderful wreck dive (German freighter Antilla - 60') and a number of reef dives. The Antilla is a must as both a day and night dive. The reef dive off of Baby Beach is fantastic (for Aruba), but not often done because it is a long drive (relatively speaking) to get there - in San Nicolas. There is a boat dive off the Sonesta's private island that has a couple of airplane wrecks - drug smugglers were caught and the planes sunk by the authorities in about 60 ft of water. The larger plane is great - you can swim through it as opposed to the smaller plane in about 40 ft of water that has little left of the structure. There are a number of other wreck dives that we haven't done yet and a shallower "underwater park" at Arashi Bay. '96 we added the Jane Sea - interesting, but I want to do it again as the current was strong that day and we couldn't stay as long or view the whole wreck. Generally speaking you won't see the volume of fish as at other Caribbean Islands and the coral is not as colorful - no comparison to Caymans where we went in October '94 or Provo (Turks & Caicos in October '95). You will still see a variety of fish and some good sized green moray eels. If you want more info on dives, let me know and I will pull out my logbooks! Call Mermaid at 35546 or stop by any morning around 9am. Some of the other dive shops that others have recommended include SEA Scuba, Pelican Watersports and Dax Divers. Although we talk about checking out some other shops, we went with Carlos again for our 1996 dives. I did see a number of other dive boats. They looked crowded and I was warned by other divers that Pelican tends run a full (crowded) boat. Some other operation came by and moored at one of the same sites we were at - first time that has happened (wish I could remember the operation) They just showed their divers where the water was and sent them on their way. A couple of them got lost and joined up with us. Warren, our dive master, had to get them oriented and back to their boat. Some of the operations may be geared more toward the cruise ship clientele than others ... load 'em on, get 'em in and get 'em out. Also, check out SCUBA DIVING March 1995 - it has a review of the ABC Islands & dive sites with a list of dive shops. The price list is incomplete - I know Mermaid has some multidive dive deals that were not listed - this year '96 $105 for 4 dives including tanks & weights - more if renting additional equipment.
Getting There We flew into Tortola (technically Beef Island), the largest of the BVIs, through San Juan, Puerto Rico. The airport is small so the biggest plane you can fly in on are 40 seater turbo props. The flight from San Juan is 30 minutes tops. It's great getting a preview of the islands from the air! Our flight was very smooth; only one kid threw up on the way in but I don't believe it had anything to do with the flight. For those who rather not fly inside "puddle jumpers", you can fly into St. Thomas and get a ferry into Tortola (I think into Soper's Hole). We met a number of people who took that route and didn't hear any complaints. We didn't want to bother dragging our luggage all around creation so we chose to fly all the way. One thing we did was carry on our luggage on our flight to San Juan. We probably would have lost in in transition as we only had 20-30 minutes to make the connection. Also, we were told that often times people find that there luggage has been "picked through" somewhere along the line. Once at the airport you've got to clear immigration and customs. It is here where you may as well get used the island pace. It won't matter if you are first through customs. The porter (or someone) will ask you where you are headed and they'll bring you to a cab. Then you wait (and wait) to see if anyone else is headed to your resort. It appears that cabs are your only choice as I don't believe you can rent a car from the airport. Our resort, Long Bay, was on the other side of the island which is normally about a 45 minute drive. We took a bit longer due to a flat tire and traffic (no problem Mon!). The cost was $24. Long Bay Resort We started our vacation with two nights at Long Bay Resort. We had a room on the beach on the first floor. The room was quite nice and well maintained. The floor had 12 inch ceramic tiles throughout. This is smart on their part as I'd imagine it would be hard to maintain carpeting given all the sand and mildew. There was a 3 paneled sliding glass door leading out to the patio overlooking the vegetation and the beach. Depending on the room, you may or may not easily see the water; it depends on the vegetation. If you want to be sure, get a room on the second floor or try to get one of their units built up on stilts. These have hammocks underneath. The beach at Long Bay is typical of the beaches in the BVI in terms of width but it is very long. Because of this it was never crowded, maybe even deserted. The best swimming is to the East in front of the pool and Beach Restaurant. There were lots of rocks on the bottom blocking your way in at other parts of the beach and because it was so shallow so far out it was hard to get in the water. The snorkeling wasn't all that great but for us it was a good spot to get warmed up for the week to come. A great beach to the west of Long Bay is Smuggler's Cove. It's about a 10-15 minute bumpy ride over a dirt road. There's a nice snorkeling trail; sunken cement blocks to follow along the edge of the coral. Also on the beach is an open air shack where you can find cold drinks (soda and beer) and even some souvenirs. It's all self serve and you pay on your honor. Look out for the shark hanging in front of the refrigerator! We ate all of our meals at the Beach Restaurant. It was a bit expensive for what we got but we had no complaints on the food. One night they had a buffet ($25/pp) which had a good selection of West Indian food. Since it was getting dark it was a bit scary to taste things that you could hardly see! If you spot what appears to be a pale looking long sausage it's actually a banana. Try it, you'll like it. The conch fritters was our favorite item on the menu. One gripe I had everywhere I went was the beer selection. I expected to have the option to sample some brews from the UK, even if they were bottled. All they had at Long Bay were some American domestic brands (like Bud), Heineken (it is everywhere) and Labbats. Tanning/The Sun The sun is intense in the Caribbean. This was our first time down here and we were amazed how quickly we heated up after getting out of the water. I'm was lucky having a dark complexion but I was always careful to spread SPF 15. I ended up with a pretty decent tan without making any real effort to just lay out in the sun. *****The Windjammer Cruise***** Sunday Another beautiful, warm day. The Jammer didn't take passengers until 5:00 so we had a day to kill. We spent the morning on the beach lounging around and then went off to Soper's Hole to kill the afternoon. Soper's in one spot where the weekly sailors (called yachties) come to pick up their sail boat rental for the week. You can feel the excitement of all the people getting ready to go out. It was fun just to sit at Pusser's bar and watch all of the activity. You may even get to experience a drunken sailor or two at the bar. I overheard one old salt explaining to a couple women how he came upon an alien space ship. We got to the dock in Roadtown at about 4:30. We were fortunate that we didn't have to wait long because there isn't all that much to do in Roadtown on Sunday; a lot of the shops are closed. For those people just arriving to Tortola on Sunday I'd recommend that after you send your luggage off to the ship take a cab to one of the beaches. Cane Garden Bay would be a good choice but you may want to wait (see Monday). We got the first launch over with about 15-20 other folks at 5:00. We were greeted by a barefoot First Mate Joe when we got to the Flying Cloud. His first words were about how we should safely get off the launch onto the ship; the water was rough! Anyway, once off we were given a rum swizzle and introduction about the ship by activities director Tousala and Purser Lydia. There you can immediately set up you accounts which allows you to sign for everything and also buy your doubloons for drinks. Thus, while on board there is no need to carry around cash. We were then shown to our cabins. We were the lucky souls who got the honeymoon suite. All I can say is "blow me down"! It was just below deck in the stern (back) of the ship. I had expected a basic square room but the shape was governed by the contours of the ship; slanted and curved in the back with a queen size bed on one side and a curved couch on the other side. There was plenty of nooks and crannies to stow our stuff. Included was a small fridge, TV, VCR and cd/cassette/radio box. And, being the honeymoon suite, all the lights were on dimmers. BTW, we never used the TV, VCR etc. but we used the dimmers (har har matey). The other cabins of the ship are nothing like this so you must book way in advance (we booked 18 months early). Of course we were the envy of the passengers and just about everybody was given a tour of our cabin by the end of the week. The first night we were treated to a buffet for dinner and then a steel drum band for entertainment. Before long there was a conga line going round the deck. Everyone in general was very friendly and relaxed. I don't know if this standard to expect, but we quite naturally started "hanging" with a few couples right from the beginning. This made a great trip even better. BTW, the night before they sail is "stowaway" night where for only $45 pp you get your lodging, dinner and breakfast. You can't come close to that on the island which is probably the reason why all the passengers were on board by the end of the night. Monday In the morning we were given an opportunity to get a 3-4 hour tour of Tortola including Cane Garden Bay. I think it was only $12 which was reasonable considering what you would pay the cabbies. We opted to take the launch into Roadtown and check out the shops. I'd say a few hours is all you need (my wife may think differently!). It's worthwhile to check out the Sunny Caribbean Spice shop and shops displaying paintings and stuff from local artists. We picked up mostly stuff for our refrigerator and some spices. We set sail for Peter's Island in the early afternoon. The trademark of Windjammer cruises is to play Amazing Grace when they raise the sails. It was amazingly quiet once the sails were up; no one spoke and we all just took it all in. Since Peter Island is only across the channel we tacked back and forth for I think about 3 hours before anchoring. Once there we were allowed to swim off the side of the ship to cool off and prepare for the rum swizzles at snack time. Dinner that night was blackened mahi-mahi or stuffed pork chops. They had two sittings for dinner and it's up to you when you want to go. You sit where you want and with who you want (a jab at the big cruise lines!). Being in the BVI we dressed for dinner ... in shorts, t-shirt and barefoot. The entertainment that night was hermit crab races. You'll need some dollar bills and luck for this ... don't pick Tousala's crab! Tuesday We were awakened by some very loud banging early in the morning and, no, it wasn't coming from the cabin next door. I never did figure it out but I think it was the combination of the engine starting up and weighing the anchor. When I came up on deck we were already under sail on the way to Cooper Island. Make sure you listen to the Captain's story time to learn the Cooper Island salute; critical information for some interactions you might have on the island later in the day. The plan for the day was a wet landing onto the beach, snorkel, lunch, snorkel. We jumped out of the launch and accosted the barman, Lance, asking where the best snorkeling was. He pointed us in the opposite direction everyone else was headed ... and he was right. Facing the beach he sent us to the right (which I think is south). The snorkeling was fantastic. There was lots of fish and a good amount of coral. Fortunately we had teamed up with another couple (Rod and Sharon) so there was another adventurous soul interested in snorkeling out to a rock sticking out of the water in the distance (called Cistern point?). It was well worth the swim (200-300 yards). The current was a bit rough when we got there so we got tossed around a bit on the rocks. You don't have that much balance with your feet stuck in a pair of fins! On the way back Rod became "Mom" for a tiny fish that stuck with him for about 200 yards. I got a great picture of it swimming right next to Rod's mask. We got back just in time for a lunch of burgers and salads on the beach. Next we headed in the other direction for more snorkeling. Pretty good. Rod spied a stingray and stirred it out from under the sand and we watched it "fly" out over the sea grass. Some folks were lucky enough to observe a sea turtle but not us, unfortunately. While snorkeling around you can't miss the abundance of conch shells buried in the sand. I kept diving down trying to find one which was uninhabited but to no avail. We returned in time for rum-swizzles at 5:00. That night the activity was a costume party. You were supposed to dress up as something that begins with P: pirate, prostitute, priest, etc. Debbi (my wife) became a finalist as a pregnant nun (I was a priest). Some people really put a lot of work into it which made it a lot more fun. Captain Max was an androgynous character complete with his toenails painted with the Union Jack! The speakers somehow blew out that night which killed the party a bit but we were exhausted from all of the snorkeling anyway. Dinner that night was on deck which was a pig roast ... very good. For those who don't like the "other" white meat, sorry, I don't remember what else they offered. Wednesday It just got better today. We sailed to Virgin Gorda, a fantastic picturesque island. Make sure you rent a car and tour this island. The views are incredible. We hooked up with two couples and shared the cost of a six passenger jeep (about $75). First we went off to Savanna Bay, my choice for most beautiful beach in the islands. It was almost deserted ... Tousala and Lance (from the crew) happened to follow us there. Besides a great beach there was a decent snorkeling trail; don't miss this spot! Next we drove up over to the other side of the island. It was hard for me to keep an eye on the road with all of the sights! Once we got to the other side of the island we just turned around. There's lots to see and do over there but we didn't have the time so we headed towards the Baths. We stopped at Mad Dogs which is right at the mouth of the Baths for a cheap lunch (toasted sandwiches) and drinks; Mad Dogs claims to have the world's best Pina Coladas. I wouldn't know, I had a Guinness (see beer rant above) but the others seemed to enjoy them. Next we took our hike to the Baths, about a 300 yard descent down a dirt path. Once there we followed a labyrinth of huge rounded boulders and pools of water. Incredible stuff. You end up at Devil's bay, the #1 beach according to a few people in our traveling show. We came back through the rocks and then snorkeled around at the Baths which is another great show. Save your strength though because you've got to go back up that 300 yard path! Dinner that night was Cornish hens which was good. You have the option of eating on the island that night (but, no, the ship doesn't pay for it). We went back to the island to sample the night life. The Bath and Turtle was hopping, and hot (temperature wise). They had a decent island type band and a unique UK ale! Yahoo! Be prepared if you get up to dance because their songs go on and on and on! Being pooped after a full day we caught the 10:00 launch and returned to the ship, ready for bed. Thursday The destination was Jost Van Dyke which was probably the longest sail of the trip. Another great beach at White Bay complete with the Soggy Dollar Bar (dollars are soggy due to all of the wet landings). Here we enjoyed a bit of snorkeling close to shore (saw an octopus) and BBQ ribs for lunch. I was fat, dumb and happy sitting comfortably in the shade sipping on a Tennent's stout (brewed in Scotland) thinking it couldn't get any better, BUT, my wife had other ideas. No, it wasn't anything like finding a deserted beach and etc.! Instead she wanted to go para-sailing. That stuff is not for me. I sort of loose my equilibrium in high places but I figured I'd watch and take pictures. Fortunately Debbi (the wife) wasn't the first to go. For reasons I still don't understand, just as the first flyer was going up off the back of the boat the rope snapped! He was in the water quickly but the chute was still dragging him backwards due to a rather strong breeze keeping the chute open. The operator of the boat stayed calm and swung the boat around to collapse the chute and grab the "sailer" out of the water. Believe it or not, after they fixed everything this guy got back on and tried again. Although all went well for him, this was enough to scare Debbi away and she opted out. So, if you are adventurous ... That night we dined on delicious lobster from the local waters at Rudy's. If you get a chance check this place out and look for our names on one of the ceiling beams in the back of the bar (Debbi & Chuck, WJ June 96). The owner does it all; he cooks, serves and cleans up. Everyone waits at the bar until he calls you in. A buffet table is set up and at the end of the table is Rudy who will serve you your choice of entree (lobster, chicken or fish). After you eat Rudy comes around with a shopping cart clearing off the tables and collecting the money ($20 for lobster dinners, $10 for fish or chicken). After dinner we went to Foxy's on the other side of the bay. This place is world renowned as one of THE places to be on New Year's Eve. Unfortunately it started to pour rain so we got a launch as soon as there was a break. Good thing we got back on the ship under the tarp at the bar when it suddenly got torrential. To help us get over it, Lance mixed us up some odd concoctions which helped us sleep well that night. Friday We sailed around the west end of Tortola on to Norman Island. Here Captain Max made an attempt to secure anchor right up close to the caves. The idea was to drop anchor and tie the stern of the ship to a very large rock. Unfortunately the first attempt failed and we were force to abandon any further attempts by a small charter boat, the White Squall. This boat just sailed right in and forced another private boat away from one of the moorings! I failed to convince the Captain to broad side the sucker so we ended up having to anchor farther out. This was fine as they secured a spot near the caves with one of the launches to be used as a base for snorkeling. Apparently the WJ is well known to the fish here because when we got in the water we were surrounded by tons of fish (mostly yellow snappers) waiting for us to feed them. It's quite a site to watch all these fish gobble up the bread all around you. You can hold the bread in your fingers but be prepared to get nibbled. They might even draw blood! Venturing to the caves was a disappointment as we were soon confronted with the jerks from the White Squall! No, only kidding. Actually, there were tons of tiny jelly fish (someone I talked to said they were sea wasps) which felt like little pin pricks when they touched you. This was NOT a good time so we abandoned water and went back to the ship. Note that some people didn't even notice them so perhaps we were being too squeamish (I swear I got a rash in a few places though). Anyway, we spent the rest of the day relaxing and swimming off of the ship. Lunch was a buffet on deck including salmon. That night was the Captain's dinner so I wore shoes. We had prime rib; very good. Later Captain brought out samples of his artwork which were some very nice paintings of the Flying Cloud. He took orders and promised to paint them during his next break (ours arrived as promised). Not much else happened that evening although I the had a feeling of dread knowing that this would soon end. Saturday We hung out on board bidding farewell to those that had planes to catch and places to go. I think it was that morning Danny served his best pastry; a fila/coconut/orange combination that was delicious. One of the passengers gave first mate Joe her pink sequined nightgown for future PPP parties or whatever else Joe might like. With a little coaxing he modeled it for us. This was a great way to perk up all of the gloomy faces contemplating the end of a great vacation (thanks Sharon!). Fortunately for Debbi and I we still had the rest of the weekend to enjoy paradise. We returned to the Long Bay Resort to a similar room. It was somewhat more elevated than our room earlier in the week so we could easily see the water from the room. Very pretty. We took a cab to Cane Garden Bay to get an up close and personal look. It was a winding ride which cost $30 round trip. After all of the other beaches we saw through the WJ cruise we didn't find this to be all that impressive. This may be because we approached it from land and it is much more built up than any other spot we had seen. There are bars, restaurants and small hotels from one end to the other. When we saw Cane Garden from a distance on the WJ it looked much prettier. Anyway, it is definitely a favorite spot for the yachties as there were quite a few anchored there. We hired (rented) a two man kayak and paddled around for about an hour. Again, it's a lot nicer from the water! Don't get me wrong though. This beach is a winner compared to other spots such as the best the NJ shore has to offer. Sunday We ended this dream of a vacation with a final snorkeling trip to Smuggler's Cove. A barracuda decided to follow us around giving Deb the heebie-jeebies forcing her out of the water. Having had enough underwater adventure I got out too. It was time to go home. When we checked in at the airport we were told that our flight was leaving through Gate 1. What a gag! There is only ONE gate. Perhaps I am wrong and the ticket agent said that "your flight leaves through THE gate". Anyway, going back home through San Juan we were favorably impressed by the way they processed us through. You had to pick up the luggage at the baggage claim you checked in at Tortola. After you clear customs with your luggage there are people to guide you to a conveyor belt where you leave your luggage to get on your flight going home from San Juan. We were supposed to have a 90 minute layover which would have been plenty of time. Unfortunately our flight was 2 hours late in leaving so this wasn't an issue for us. There you have it. Without hesitation, WE WILL DO THIS AGAIN! Debbi's Helpful Hints Pack light. Try to carry on all bags. Good sunglasses. Bring plenty of suntan lotion (it was reasonably priced aboard on the WJ) Disposable panoramic cameras worked well. Underwater camera a must. We were glad we brought along an inflatable waterproof "sports bag" we bought at Sports Authority; an 8x12 inch bag you can strap on and keep your $$$, etc. safe and dry. Bring a bunch of single dollar bills for tips, taxis, etc. Don't count on the cab drivers having change for big bills. Bring extra beach towels. You use them a lot. Leave the make-up at home. Everybody looks like a Rasta Man by the end of the week. Talk to the crew. They are friendly interesting and nice.
This is a trip report for our four day stay at the Cancun Crown Princess Club with our 3-1/2 year old daughter Madeline. The Crown Princess Club is an all-inclusive hotel, so we ate most of our meals there. The hotel has seven guest floors. We stayed in a 6th floor room with a single king-sized bed plus a rollaway for our daughter. The room was comfortable with plenty of room to maneuver around the two beds. Color TV is supplied, including one American channel and the Disney channel. The balcony afforded a beautiful view of the ocean. The hotel staff was courteous, efficient, and accommodating. They were especially kind to Madeline. The public areas of the hotel were immaculately clean. All the hotel employees who met the public spoke English well. The concierge desk staff was competent and friendly. The hotel has four swimming pools. One overlooks the ocean; another is reserved for adults only; a third is semi-indoors, sheltered from rain; a fourth is a mini-waterpark where children four years and older may be left unattended. All food and beverages were included in our room rate. The hotel has four restaurants. Breakfast and dinner are served buffet style in La Bellavista from 7-11am and 6-11pm, with chefs present for cook-to-order entrees. Another pool-side restaurant provides lunch from 12-5. Hot entrees and deserts from the buffet lines were comparable to typical American cafeteria fare. There was always a lot of fresh fruit and melon available; usually cantaloupe, watermelon, honeydew, papaya, and pineapple, apples, bananas, and oranges. Also plenty of good fresh bread and several kinds of cheese. The hotel also has Mexican and Italian restaurants that provide sit-down service for dinner only. Each restaurant has three sittings and reservations are required. Call promptly at 8 am if you want the most popular 7 or 8 pm seatings. Semi-formal dress is required for the Italian restaurant, so we didn't try it. Our dinner in the Mexican restaurant was quite good, and very different from the fare available in Mexican restaurants here in Dallas. The hotel provides a nightly musical show about an hour long; the performers dance in various costumes to canned music. The Sunday show is intended for children and we all enjoyed it. We skipped Monday's show. Tuesday's show consisted of dance numbers from various countries of the world and was pretty good except for the Flamenco and Hula numbers which were quite bad. Wednesday's show was lip-synched imitations of various popular performers and was only so-so. Our overall impression of the Crown Princess is that it's a very good place to stay with children, but we wouldn't recommend it for adults alone. On Tuesday we took a bus tour to the Mayan Ruins at Tulum and then to Xel-Ha for snorkeling. This was not a good idea. The tour cost $48 per adult, and $24 for children, for a total of $120. After boarding the bus at 7:30 am, we spent 40 minutes picking up passengers at other hotels before finally proceeding to Tulum two hours away. After an hour and three-quarters at Tulum, we drove north for thirty minutes to an apparently struggling seaside hotel for a minimally edible lunch, then drove another fifteen minutes back south to Xel-Ha for snorkeling. After two hours at Xel-Ha, we returned to Cancun. Tulum and Xel-Ha are both worth visiting, but not by bus. You can hire a taxi for the day for $90, and come and go as you please, or you can rent a car for $70 if you are more adventurous. An hour at Tulum is about enough for most people. Xel-Ha is a great place to visit if you want to snorkel but aren't a great swimmer. It's a lagoon fed by cold fresh water and is full of fish -- yellowfin tuna, parrot fish, barracuda, and some other species I can't remember. It's a relaxing and enjoyable place to go. I would go back and spend an entire day there. Morning is the best time to be at Xel-Ha, since the tour buses all arrive at mid-afternoon.
(The following article is copyrighted (c), 1996, by JMB Communications, P. O. Box 1812, Plymouth, MA 02362-1812. Reprinted in the CTR with the permission of Jeff Berger.)
On September 4 and 5 of last year, Hurricane Luis battered the normally tranquil, picture-postcard-perfect Caribbean resort island of Sint Maarten with sustained winds of 140 mph, gusts estimated at over 200 mph, surging storm tides, and torrential rains, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, incalculable losses in tourist income, and temporarily stripping the island of virtually all its lush vegetation. A week later, Hurricane Marilyn, on her way to a vicious date with St. Thomas, deluged St. Maarten's many newly roofless buildings with about a foot of totally unwelcome rains, ruining much of what was still left standing. Total losses were estimated by government officials at over $1-billion. This writer spent much of January and February on St. Maarten, returning again in mid-April for a last pre-summer look. His original intent: to write a simple Hurricane Luis post-mortem, a progress report on the recovery. What he found, instead, was that the remarkably resilient residents of this half-Dutch, half- French island had worked side by side with French and Dutch soldiers for months, and that the rebuilding process was -- astoundingly -- all but complete. So, the story which follows focuses on what a vacationer to Sint Maarten/St. Martin will find there right now -- many months after the departure of an unwelcome guest called Luis. (The writer last visited in July, just as minimal Hurricane Bertha grazed the island. It caused insignificant damage.) If you had been sleeping for months aboard a cruise ship, then got off and walked down Front Street today in Philipsburg, Sint Maarten's bustling tourist-oriented commercial center, you'd never know that the island had been slammed by a Category 5 hurricane not many months earlier. All the shops in Philipsburg and in Marigot, the tres chic main shopping center on the cosmopolitan French side of the island, are crammed full with fresh merchandise, and you'd have a hard time finding anyplace at all here that's boarded up or NOT bustling with tourists. Although vegetation on this island is back in full bloom and as lush as ever, there are a few traces of Luis' visit. Several beach-facing resorts -- Mullet Bay, Dawn Beach, and Port de Pleasance among them, remain closed at this writing. Dawn Beach, on the island's east coast, bore the full brunt of the storm and was virtually demolished. Some hotels chose to quietly wait out what was a slow winter season, while taking advantage of generous benefits from their business interruption insurance. La Samanna, the ultra-luxury resort on Long Beach, was hit hard by the storm but is 100% repaired and recently reopened, its opulence as evident as ever. Long Beach, which had been badly eroded by the storm, has come back and is wider and softer at this writing than it has been in years. More on beaches later. Mullet Bay is not expected to reopen until the end of 1997. Port de Pleasance is reportedly the target of a major Hollywood studio seeking a point of expansion in the Caribbean. But there is plenty of hotel space available on the island now and there is absolutely every reason to come here. And come here, tourists are. Having relegated the graphic TV coverage of Luis' damage to "yesterday's news," tourists are flocking back. Airline flights to this popular island have increased to pre-Luis levels . . . about a dozen cruise ships stop here every week . . . and the shops and restaurants are doing business which is approaching pre-hurricane levels. How Are Philipsburg and Marigot? As noted earlier, both towns are clean, well-stocked, freshly- painted, and have their absolute best, pristine foot forward for tourists. Downtown Phillips burg's Windmill shop, our annual souvenir shop stop, is as overstuffed as always with literally thousands of shirts, from the eye-catching hand-painted to the I- can't-describe-that-here tackiest. Like many other souvenir and jewelry shops here, Windmill is operated by emigres from India, many of whose families have been here for many generations. Caribbean Gems and Zhaveri Jewelers, also annual stops for us, are crammed with ship passengers and repeat customers, and the haggling is as spirited and successful as ever. Philipsburg has excellent buys in jewelry and electronics, often as prices less than you might pay in the U. S. If couture is your interest, check out Marigot. The latest Paris fashions are here, as is the most pricey jewelry. And the bakeries will make you want to eat dessert first.... What about the beaches? St. Maarten's beaches, or at least many of them, change shape and size according to the whims of Mother Nature. Some beaches grew during Luis while others shrank, but virtually all the island's beaches are now in pre-hurricane shape. Here's a quick rundown of many of the island's most popular beaches: Mullet Beach, the very popular strand at the Mullet Bay resort, is as beautiful and as heavily used as always. Its big waves make it a favorite with local surfers. Pelican Beach, at the sprawling Pelican Resort complex, is slightly wider than before Luis, and remains very popular. The most successful timeshare resort in the world, Pelican lost several roofs to Luis. Its recovery, chronicled by photography sometimes displayed in the lobby, was astonishing; it began accepting guests barely two months after the storm hit. (Beach chairs here are only for Pelican timeshare owners.) The view of ocean sunsets here can be spectacular. Maho Beach, at the end of the runway of Princess Juliana airport, is an almost equally attractive strand, as long as you don't mind the a 747 approaching the airport only about 50 feet over your head. Great Bay Beach, which encompasses the Philipsburg waterfront, is as crystal-clear and inviting as ever. Dawn Beach, site of the destroyed Dawn Beach Hotel, is gorgeous. It grew bigger during Luis, but "no trespassing" signs at the resort make access ill-advised. Orient Beach, the largest and most popular on the island, saw all its watersports facilities, restaurants, and beach bars washed away by Luis -- but they're all back, better than ever. Club Orient, the world-renowned naturist resort, was blown apart by Luis, as if its log chalets were houses of cards hit by cinder blocks. The chalets are being quickly rebuilt, and the popular Papagayo restaurant has been open, and busy, for months. Most of the little shops that were here pre-Luis are back, and new ones are being created as you read this. The beach is bustling even as the hammers bang away. (All of Orient is clothing optional, except for the restaurants and bars outside Club Orient.) Anse Marcel, at Le Meridien Hotel, is open, as is the hotel itself, which is busy with French tourists. Rouge Beach, one of the island's longest and most beautiful, is in great shape, made larger by Luis. Like all beaches on the French side, tops are optional here. The more southerly end of the beach is clothing optional. Long Beach, with the "rich and famous" hotel La Samanna at its southern end, rebuilt itself nicely after Luis and gives you a great spot for relaxing. Cupecoy is actually a string of beaches at the island's southwest corner. Sandstone cliffs and caves are the backdrop for this unusual beach, one of the world's most gorgeous. Its steep drop- off, which changes shape frequently (as does the string of beaches itself), makes Cupecoy waters hazardous for young children. Cupecoy is largely clothing optional. Prune Beach, also known as Plum Bay, is a gorgeous, intimate, crescent-shaped strand frequented by an eclectic crowd including occasional surfers, despite rocks among the breakers. Le Galion Beach, also known as Embouchure or Coconut Grove, on the site of the long-since defunct Le Galion Hotel, is the island's best windsurfing beach and is ideal for children because of its shallow, calm waters near shore. (Topless with some clothing-optional use. Orient Beach is a seven-minute walk away.) Sint Maarten Restaurants This island has literally hundreds of fine restaurants -- "fine" in terms of quality, ambiance, and service. If you've long had a favorite restaurant here, you can pretty well assume it's open and serving a memorable variety of favorite dishes. Turtle Pier, an over-water restaurant bordering Simpson Bay diagonally opposite the entrance to Princess Juliana Airport, had a small ship slam into it after Luis ripped the ship (and many others) loose from its moorings in Simpson Bay. Turtle Pier reopened in October, just weeks after the hurricane. Park in front near their big yellow sign, and you're likely to be greeted with screeches or wolf whistles by an assortment of parrots beside the restaurant walkway. (There are also large turtles, small monkeys, and rabbits.) This well-hidden gem of a bar/restaurant is a two-minute walk away, and rabbit is not on the menu. The lively bar is frequented by local business people and tourists. Pick your Caribbean lobster from their in-the-bay selection (from nearby Saba, they range from a hard-to-find pound and a half to eight pounds or more). Sea turtles cohabitate with lobsters here. I asked whether the lobsters dine on the turtles. "No," I was told, "but sometimes if a turtle gets hungry enough, it eats a lobster." Which explains why both sea creatures are fed frequently here. Turtles are raised here for pure enjoyment, and are ultimately released to the ocean. Turtle Pier offers a large selection of fresh seafood, steaks, duck, or chicken. On a couple of occasions we were stuffed just by the appetizers: coconut shrimp is several large, beer-battered shrimp, rolled in shredded coconut, fried and served with glazed pineapple rings...(also available in a dinner portion). Or try the conch (pronounced "conk") fritters, served hot with a cold saffron dip. Our favorite dinner: Caribbean Blaff, snapper poached in a broth seasoned with bois d'Inde, Caribbean herbs and spices, and served over sliced Christophene (a squash), dasheen and plantains, and any of their Caribbean lobster dishes -- Champagne, Creole, Thermidor, or any of several others. Turtle Pier is also open for lunch and breakfast. Owner, Sint Maarten native Albert Wathey II. One of the liveliest spots on the island is busy Cheri's Cafe in the Maho district, which reopened just after the Super Bowl. Serving fresh, delicious overstuffed sandwiches at lunch and dinner and a large menu of traditional dinner selections, Cheri's has nightly entertainment into the wee hours. If you just want to sit, slowly sip on a Pina Colada, and take in the many sights and sounds, nobody will hassle you here. Tucked deep in the alley between Casino Royale and Cheri's is one of the island's many Italian restaurants, Pizza & Pasta Trattoria, which is a kick. This smallish, unpretentious restaurant, which fills up early, is operated by Ilda Figarolo, who immediately challenged us as we sat down: "Do you know what a Trattoria is?" Before we could inhale to answer, she charged on, "A Trattoria is like eating in someone's home! It is small, it is noisy, and you get a lot of food!" It wasn't actually all that noisy, except when Ilda got into an animated discussion with an employee in the kitchen, but the portions are huge, and be prepared for a disdainful look from Ilda if you don't finish. (We took home two doggie bags and yes, we got "the look.") We chose both Melanzane Parmigiani, Eggplant Parm (we opted for the vegetarian sauce), and Spaghetti Bolognese, spaghetti with meatballs, which was so delightful it reminded me of "Carrie" Fargnoli, a friend of my parents who, when I was a kid, made her own pasta (long before it was chic) and the most delicious meatballs.... The salads, soups, and of course the thin-crust pizza are all top-notch. Not far away is Laguna, another Italian restaurant with a casual elegance and food quality few others match. All we'll say here is that you've got o try it on your next-to-last night on the island. Everything (and we have tried practically everything) is done perfectly. Another outstanding Italian restaurant is Tutta Pasta, operated by Angela Fair, her husband/opera soloist Aldo (whose classical Neapolitan songs and arias you'll hear playing softly in the background), and Walter Warren of Sint Maarten. Tutta Pasta offers an incomparably rich collection of old (and occasionally new) family recipes, many of them generations old. One of the oldest is Spaghetti alla Mamma, with delicately thin slices of zucchini fried in olive oil served over spaghetti, locatelli cheese, and garnished with mint leaves. We tried the baked farfalle with salmon, bowtie pasta with pink salmon in a "gentle" cream sauce seasoned with dill. We also tried the Spaghetti alla Sandra, which had fresh, tender mushrooms sauteed in imported olive oil with garlic and parsley in tomato sauce. All of the pasta -- nearly three dozen menu offerings -- is imported from Italy. This smallish, romantic restaurant offers great ambiance, a fine view of Simpson Bay, and fine, authentic Italian food with generous portions. Probably the island's biggest, noisiest Italian restaurant is Sambuca, started about 18 months ago by American Steve Cross. Reopened immediately after Luis departed, Sambuca served upwards of 600 dinners a day to Dutch marines and to islanders who said the place was "jumpin'" right after the storm. Sambuca, with its traditional red and white checked tablecloths, has quickly become a favorite here, serving many local people from all over the island as well as many tourists. Sambuca offers a great variety of traditional Italian fare at back-home prices. If you can stand the bumpy, out-of-the-way ride to get there, Captain Oliver's restaurant at Oyster Pond is not to be missed. Dine at water's edge just feet away from luxurious sailboats and yachts, and enjoy the romantic ambiance day or night. You'll find a wide selection of fine French cuisine here. (Reservations are a must, especially for choice seating near the water.) Another of our favorite places is Chesterfield's, at Bobby's Marina in the northern part of Philipsburg. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Chesterfield's offers reasonable prices along with a panoramic view of the entire Philipsburg waterfront. You can make reservations next door for a day-sail to nearby St. Barth's. Come at night to enjoy the lively bar and great food, with an abundance of locally caught seafood. The grilled tuna is superb. For a change of pace, check out Ric's Place on the waterfront in downtown Philipsburg. An American sports by run by Texans Kathy and Ric, Ric's serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all inexpensive, delicious, and filling. Check out the walls and ceiling, where you'll find banners and other mementos from scores of college and professional sports teams, while you sit and watch sports on their big satellite TVs. Or sit by the water at check out the arriving cruise ships. (Come Super Bowl Sunday, this is the busiest place on the island.) For a wilder change of pace, check out Surf Club South just east of the Grand Case airport on the French side of the island. Formerly located under a mammoth tree on the beach in Grand Case, Surf Club South was forced to move when Luis literally blew the bar away. This is probably the only place on the island where you can buy real American coffee (usually Maxwell House), think waffles with a choice of several thick syrups, stupendous onion rings, old-fashioned juicy hamburgers, and anything you want to drink from their bar, which at its former location was named one of the ten best in the world by Newsweek International. Hot? Jump in their pool, right next to the bar. And don't worry about the two big, bright-yellow outhouses right in the dining room -- they're just for decoration. This place is heralded by big flags for Heineken and Finlandia, and by oddly familiar metal signs for both the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway (complete with mile marker). Andy, the affable gray-ponytailed owner/creator of this icon, takes the fate of his original establishment -- and most everything else -- in good humor, but he's dead serious about that back-home-in-the-summertime food. It is delicious. The gastronomic heart of St. Maarten./St. Martin for years has been Grand Case, on the French side at the northeast coast. Grand Case is home to many world-renowned restaurants where the view of Grand Case Beach is picture-perfect, and is easily matched by the best dining on the island. For lobster try Le Fish Pot, an island favorite for many years. Le Tastevin continues to be as popular and busy as ever. Everyone is entitled to a favorite restaurant on their favorite island, and ours is L'Alabama. Co-owners Karin and Pascal have created a menu of true delights that alone are worth a return visit. The specials will draw you here again and again. Start with a Caesar Salad for one, the best in the world in this writer's opinion (and easily big enough for two, though you'll want it all for yourself). Whether you prefer seafood or beef, or if you prefer a vegetarian selection, Karin and Pascal will know how to please you: this is one restaurant where you just can't miss. Reservations are essential, particularly on weekends. If you discounted St. Maarten/St. Martin last winter because of Hurricane Luis, discount it no more. The beaches are gorgeous, the shops are open and ready to welcome you (with very reasonable prices), the weather is as warm and sunny as you want, and the food is out of this world. Dessert? Did you say you're ready? There are dozens of fine bakeries here, but the one that catches us every time is the Casino Royale Bakery next to Cheri's Cafe. Your cardiologist may not like it, but the Coconut Cake is absolutely beyond description. Our advice: skip dinner altogether one night and head here. There's Key Lime Pie, Apple Tart, Chocolate-Chocolate cake, and lots more to savor before you walk a few feet away to watch that warm tropical moon shimmer over the warm Caribbean sea....
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